A potentially volatile mix of high hopes for the new president and deep dissatisfaction with the country's condition greets Barack Obama's inauguration – a political fulcrum that could tip for or against him as he grapples with the country's economic crisis.
His starting position could hardly be better: While Obama's ratings for handling the transition are typically high, his personal popularity is extraordinarily so – better than any incoming president's in polling since Ronald Reagan. His political image, likewise, is more centrist than any president's in data back 30 years.
Support for change, moreover, is in the air, with seven in 10 Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll saying Obama has a mandate for "major new social and economic programs." Vastly fewer saw a mandate for George W. Bush eight years ago.
But that demand for change reflects the troubled times: Seventy-eight percent say the country's seriously off on the wrong track, down from its recent peak but still the highest level of national dissatisfaction to greet any incoming president in at least a generation.
Discontent with the economy is at a record high – 94 percent say it's in bad shape – and personal worries have soared, with 70 percent now concerned about their family's financial situation. Economic discontent is a powerful political force; the question ahead for Obama is whether it dissipates, bides its time – or turns on him.
Eighty percent approve of Obama's work to date, on par with – no better than – transition ratings for Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. (The current Bush did a bit less well.) It's a bipartisan rating, but no more so than it was for Obama's recent predecessors. And for them it didn't last, a reminder of the potential fragility of a president's initial popularity.
POSITIVES – At the same time, Obama's achieved a remarkably positive and centrist image. Seventy-nine percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of him personally, better than any incoming president in polls dating back to 1981.
Sixty-five percent also say Obama's neither too liberal nor too conservative but "about right" ideologically, a high in polls since 1979. And a remarkable 89 percent say he's "willing to listen to different points of view," his single best rating. Marks like these can provide cushioning in tough times.
Indeed, perhaps given the challenges he faces, expectations of Obama's performance are to some extent muted. Fifty-two percent have high expectations for his performance as president, but 34 percent instead describe their expectations as "moderate." That, too, may work to his advantage, given the hazard of unmet expectations.
The good will is not for Obama alone: his wife, similarly, holds the highest initial popularity rating, 72 percent, of any incoming first lady in data since Nancy Reagan – not a bad birthday gift. (Michelle Obama turned 45 Saturday.) And 63 percent express a favorable opinion of the incoming vice president, Joe Biden.
BUSH – Part of Obama's welcome likely reflects the public's relief at the departure of the heavily unpopular George W. Bush. In his final ABC/Post rating, 33 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush handled his job; that's up from his low of 23 percent in October – presidents tend to do better as they leave the fray – but still dismal. Sixty-six percent disapprove, most of them strongly.